Hundreds of Kansas Citians make the trek to the Lake of the Ozarks every summer weekend to get away to their second homes.
Hundreds of others simply pull off the highway and make the short drive to their homes in Northland, where they can enjoy the lake lifestyle every day of the year.
Just off Interstate 29 in Platte County lie four private lakes surrounded by residences. From south to north they are Houston, Riss, Waukomis and Weatherby lakes.
They share some similarities and common issues — boating and wildlife on the one hand, the fight against silt and zebra mussels on the other — but each is different.
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Each has hundreds of residents who love living close to the airport and other urban amenities and yet with a natural, rural feeling. They use terms like “best-kept secret” and “hidden treasure” to describe their communities.
Founded in 1930, Houston Lake is the oldest of the four Northland lakes and also the smallest.
According to the city’s website, around 1880 the Brenner family built a dam across Jumping Branch Creek to make a farm pond. The dam washed out a few times and was rebuilt, eventually resulting in the 20-acre Lake Venetia.
In 1928 Charles and Emma Houston bought the land and began renting cabins to fishermen. In 1930 they built a new dam, which is still in use today.
In 1946 the Houstons formed the Venetian Gardens Homes Association and deeded the lake to it. In 1955 Venetian Gardens was incorporated as the Village of Houston Lake, and in 1960 it became a fourth-class city with an elected government.
Most of the homes around the lake today were built between the late 1930s and 1950s.
The long history of Houston Lake has led to one of the current problems facing its 235 residents and their city government.
After two vehicles struck the wooden bridge that extends from the dam over the spillway in the past year or so, the four aldermen voted in June to close it, citing safety and liability concerns. But that hasn’t happened yet.
“We need to figure out what we’re going to do about that,” said Alderman Dan Coronado, the mayor pro tem. “We won’t be able to rebuild the bridge the way it exists now. It will have to become a modern bridge with a pedestrian walkway, and it would probably cost $1.5 million to build.
“We would have to levy a special assessment, and people are not going to like that.”
Jean Anderson joined in the unanimous vote to close the bridge, but she recognizes it would pose a hardship for people who live on the lake, particularly its southwest side.
“There will be more discussion,” she said.
Not everyone who lives on Houston Lake has a dock or a boat, and those who do have motorboats must abide by a 7.7-horsepower engine-size limit. It’s a “no wake” lake.
Some residents tool around in kayaks or other small plastic boats that they put in from the public beach.
For now, Houston Lake has apparently managed to keep zebra mussels out, but it has not been as lucky against another invader: silt.
“Silt has built up from all the development in the watershed north of us,” Coronado said.
“It empties into Houston Lake and settles at the bottom. The lake used to be 30 feet deep, and now in some places you can walk across with the water neck high.”
Anderson said some dredging was done from the shore near City Hall a few years ago. But lake maintenance is a homes association matter, and not one for the city government.
Still, Anderson said, she has loved living at Houston Lake for the past nine years.
“It’s so convenient to downtown and to Parkville, where my husband works,” she said.
Despite its location hard up against the intersection of Interstates 29 and 635, Houston Lake is mostly tranquil, Coronado said.
“You come home, open your back door and look at the lake, and it’s not like being in the city at all. ... And yet it takes 10 minutes to get to the airport.”
Riss Lake is unique among the four Northland lakes in that it has no houses or private docks along the shoreline and no gasoline-powered boats plying its waters.
All the electric-powered boats must dock at a single marina. Swimming is prohibited, too.
The 134-acre lake was created around 1950 as a private fishing preserve on land owned by members of the Riss family, who built a dam across White Branch Creek. The Kansas City-based Riss trucking company, now defunct, once was one of the nation’s largest.
A couple of developers went bankrupt in subsequent years, trying to build subdivisions nearby. Builder Don Julian acquired the properties in the late 1980s and succeeded in creating an upscale community around the lake, with several neighborhoods featuring homes selling for $200,000 to several million dollars.
Although residents can’t build within 700 feet of the shore, some large homes poke through the trees, affording residents water views. Everyone in the Riss development can enjoy amenities that include walking trails, swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, sand volleyball and playgrounds.
Realtor Marty Perrea lives on the lake and has sold several houses there. He is president the Riss Lake Fishing Club. An avid outdoorsman, he loves the unspoiled feeling of the lake.
Its natural setting is aided by the adjoining 49-acre Parkville Nature Sanctuary, created in 1989 when lake developers donated land at the base of the dam to the city of Parkville.
“You see a ton of deer, beavers, wild turkeys. We have a bald eagle that visits in the winter,” Perrea said.
“What makes our fishing so good,” he said, “is that we have over 80 feet of depth at the southern end.”
He said Riss, Waukomis and Weatherby lakes annually stock walleye, a game fish normally found in northern U.S. lakes. Riss also stocks trout, catfish and red-eared sunfish.
“All the lakes have residents who take part in the management of the resource,” Perrea said. “There is a lot of work in that.”
Not everyone who lives on a Northland lake likes to fish, however. Residents there for eight years, Ed and Shelley MacGee use their pontoon boat on Lake Waukomis strictly for relaxation.
“In one of the Indian languages, ‘Waukomis’ means ‘land of peace,’” Shelley MacGee said.
Established in 1947 and comprising 90 acres of water, Lake Waukomis has 870 residents, according to the 2010 Census.
Shelley MacGee was walking a dog while Ed MacGee was riding in one of the many golf carts seen around the lake on a recent warm afternoon. They were both wearing Lake Waukomis T-shirts and returning home after harvesting vegetables in the community garden beneath the dam.
“See that pontoon in the middle of the lake? That is the best activity around, especially on a day like today,” Shelley MacGee said. “You park your pontoon, jump off, sit on your noodle and relax and have a beverage of your choice.” (Flotation devices known as noodles are popular at many lakes.)
Like Weatherby Lake, Waukomis limits the horsepower of gasoline-powered boat engines to less than 10.
“Three of my four children live here at the lake, and we all have our pontoons,” Shelley MacGee said. “Last night we had ladies night and tied off three pontoons out in the middle of the lake and jumped off on our noodles.
“I would definitely recommend this as the best-kept secret around. When you come here, the rest of the city just does not exist.”
Although lakes may seem much alike to outsiders, MacGee has made note of the differences. She knows that Weatherby has a lot of community activities but says the lake road there doesn’t make a complete circle because it links up with Barry Road.
“Here you can go all the way around the lake without having to go out on a main street, so that makes it quite nice,” she said.
She describes Waukomis as “perfect” for pontooning, exercising, running and community activities.
“I would say it’s the best out of all.”
Homes around Lake Waukomis are close together, especially compared with Weatherby Lake or Riss Lake.
“At first we thought that would bother us, but it doesn’t,” Shelley MacGee said.
“Everybody gets along so well. Everyone is here for the same purpose, and that’s ‘Relax, you’re home.’ That’s a saying here: Once you get on the lake, relax, you’re home.”
Riss Lake is part of Parkville, but Weatherby, Houston and Waukomis are their own small cities, and Independence Day is a traditional gathering time for fireworks displays and picnics.
“This last Fourth of July was kind of somber yet celebratory, because we had lost our mayor two weeks prior,” Shelley MacGee said.
Charlie Hinson had been re-elected without opposition in April.
“His big moment was the mayor’s speech, and he always delivered such an awesome speech. All these flags were half-mast for Charlie.”
Sailboating and swimming are perhaps the most distinctive features of Weatherby Lake.
The Weatherby Lake Yacht Club sponsors sailboat races every Sunday from late April to early October. There is a sand beach and a floating barrier around the swimming area on “C” Point, where there is also a large new pavilion and several picnic tables.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, as a plane taking off from Kansas City International Airport climbed into the sky above, a group of people sat on their pontoon boat docked at the point, while one man repeatedly tossed a tennis ball into the lake for his dog to fetch.
The pontoon boats carry such evocative model names as Party Barge, Aqua Patio and Playbuoy.
The 200-acre lake was created in 1937 by damming Rush Creek. The city was incorporated in 1959 and today has about 2,000 residents.
Yacht Club Commodore Greg Carlile and his wife, Barbara, have lived on the lake since 1996.
“We often say our biggest regret is that we didn’t move here sooner to raise our kids here,” Greg Carlile said. “It’s a strong community and a wonderful place to raise a family and have friends. There are a lot of programs that involve the use of the lake year-round and involve all ages.
“I have never lived in a community where there was such congeniality.”
Carlile said Weatherby Lake is known for its cold, clear water.
“Two things contribute to the cleanliness of the water,” he said. “For an inland lake in Missouri, it’s pretty deep. The original channel at the dam was 125 feet deep. Today, if you take soundings, it’s about 95 feet. It’s silted in.”
The other factor, Carlile said, is that the community has an active improvement company, which tests the water after it rains.
“They regularly test the coves for contamination or issues with runoff,” Carlile said.
“The community has worked diligently for 50 years. Whenever there is a development that impacts the runoff area of the lake, we make sure silt fences are set up. We dredge the lake periodically. We spent a lot of money and time and energy trying to protect the lake.”
As far as he is concerned, Weatherby is the best of the Northland lakes.
“As it compares to Waukomis, there is a little larger diversity of homes here,” Carlile said. “They are set back and further apart.
“Houston is a big pond, really. Riss Lake ... reminds me of an Overland Park suburb. There are big, beautiful homes, but I don’t get the sense that Riss has the same kind of camaraderie.
“The electric boats are kind of a neat thing, but having to use the marina gives it a totally different feel.”
People on other lakes are partial to their surroundings, too. But if anything mars the tranquility of lake life, it’s anxiety about a fingernail-sized piece of protoplasm called the zebra mussel.
An invasive species from Russia first introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1980s, zebra mussels have spread to North American waterways from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, covering hard surfaces and threatening native ecosystems.
Those who live around unaffected bodies of water are trying hard to keep them out.
The Missouri Department of Conservation says the mussels were first reported in Missouri in 1991 in the Mississippi River and weren’t found west of there in the state until 1999, when they were seen in the Missouri River near Sioux City, Iowa, and in the lower Meramec River south of St. Louis.
In 2012 the state announced that zebra mussels had been confirmed in Smithville Lake. They’re at Lake Lotawana in Jackson County at the Lake of the Ozarks, too.
The department says female zebra mussels can produce as many as a million eggs per year. They develop into larvae, form shells and clump onto places like docks and boat hulls.
The mussels have predators, but department officials have said there’s no practical way to eliminate zebra mussels once they’re established.
That’s why many lake communities, including Weatherby, take precautions to prevent them from riding in on visiting boats or fishing gear.
Houston Lake warns boaters to take precautions, and officials have put a chain across the boat ramp by the dam. Anyone who wants to put in a large boat that might harbor zebra mussels or their larvae must submit to an inspection before getting a key to unlock the chain.
A recent Lake Waukomis newsletter highlighted that community’s message: “No gear except from here!”
A piece titled “Why Can’t My Friend Fish?” said friends can fish at Waukomis but warned that they could infest the lake by bringing in fishing rods, bait, lifejackets or other swimming equipment from another spot already tainted with zebra mussels.
Residents are advised to let guests use equipment kept at Lake Waukomis or allow potential guests to keep equipment there.
“Once it’s been out of water and completely dry for a few weeks, it should be safe,” the newsletter said.
“Is this inconvenient? Yup! A pain in the backside? Yup! But it’s also necessary and important for the future of our lake and our property values.”